Several strands of neuroscience, psychology, and medicine are coming to together to explain how our brains create “pain stories” and the meaning behind past painful experiences and trauma we’ve suffered. Together, these insights suggest new ways to understand pain, brain plasticity, and rehabilitation. Here’s part of the story so far…

Our brains are meaning-making machines. Information from our senses and past experiences are constantly incorporated into how we feel and how we perceive messages coming from inside our body. This information is processed in the brain by two systems-one slow and analytical and one fast and intuitive. These two brain systems both cooperate and compete to create a coherent “stream of consciousness” about our daily experience. Scientists have long been able to show that they can “trick” our minds into preferentially paying attention to one system over the other in some circumstances. These “mind-tricks” are familiar to anyone who has seen optical illusions, played word-games, or viewed sleight-of-hand magic.

As we develop, our brains store memories and stories about painful experiences not only in our “memory banks” but also diffusely throughout our nervous system and other tissues. These experiences, in a very real sense, become “embodied.” Long after a painful experience has ceased or resolved, our body may still react as though it were in pain-we develop abnormal movement patterns, muscle guarding and spasm, avoidance of certain activities, and hyper-arousal. In time, these stories become the “grounded experience” of living with persistent pain and their consequences perpetuate new injuries. Even after we’ve forgotten the original trauma, our body still “keeps score” and tries to go about its usual business (making new meaning) with the old stories blaring in the background.

The good news is that by deliberately practicing certain techniques and learning to use our brain’s two meaning making systems in new ways, we can teach the brain, the body, and other tissues how to write new endings to those old painful stories.  Many of the techniques to accomplish this incorporate aspects of mindfulness, meditation practice, and other proven educational interventions. While the effects can be dramatic, most specialists agree that it is not a quick fix. And, most importantly, the process must start with taking a careful medical history (listening to the old stories), making the correct diagnosis, and planning a series of interventions and activities to engage the two brain systems.

If you feel frustrated, stuck, or stymied by your lack of progress or lack of healing, the specialists at Columbia Pain Management may be able to help. The science of pain is changing and new treatments and interventions are available to help you get back on track and doing the things you enjoy.

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